Ahhh… I just returned from a four-day retreat at Light on the Hill retreat center in Van Etten, New York. It is where I go when I need to remove myself from all distractions and journey deep into inner space to work with what arises and get a sense of direction. It felt as if I’d set up camp at the biggest crossroads I’ve ever come to in my life, and it was time to get a move on! I intuitively knew that going on retreat would help to set me in motion.
My underlying intention for going on retreat was to release what doesn’t serve me ( just as a backpacker would want to lighten her load for more efficient traveling), which really means letting go of the attachments and perceptions that don’t serve me. I wanted to purge, from the inside out, what is no longer beneficial and establish “right relationship” with anything I have developed an unhealthy attachment to. I sensed there was some kind of inner blockage preventing me from moving forward in many areas of my life, and I wanted to get in touch with that blockage and dissolve it. Fall is a natural time for letting go, and the fall equinox seemed like a perfect time to be on solitary retreat and make (surrender to? pray for?) such shifts so I could proceed with clearer energy that would attract what is in alignment with my highest self.
Through talking with my guide, Alice, I decided to do a healing retreat, which I had never done before. This kind of retreat involved meeting with her each day for a 90-minute counseling and healing session and doing simple practices and activities in between sessions to integrate the healing work.
I stayed in the Meadow Cottage, as I usually do. When I first walked through the door, the familiar space embraced me as though I’d never left.
Like the other retreat cottages and huts, the Meadow Cottage has no electricity, which helps me return to a more natural rhythm and fall asleep earlier at night. The view from the sleeping loft is a joy to awaken to.
And the mist in the valley was irresistible each morning.
But I was there to do some deep work, and it was a revelatory journey. Drawing upon dreams, emotions, memories, and a whole lot of s*** that surfaced (much of which I thought was long buried and forgotten), I got in touch with the blockage in me and discovered a fantastic story that was living in my solar plexus region. Under Alice’s masterful guidance, I worked with that story, some related dream material, and an understanding of my personality patterns and managed to shift into a healthier, new paradigm for perceiving and interacting with the world. I won’t go into detail because it was an intense and deeply personal process that probably would be lost in translation. But I experienced a profound shift – possibly the shift of a lifetime. At first, the amount of s*** that came up was nearly overwhelming. But bringing it into the light was necessary for releasing and transforming it. It no longer bubbles beneath the surface.
The weather couldn’t have been more spectacular, and I spent a lot of time walking and writing. Twice a day, I walked either of the two labyrinths on the property.
Both are based on the 11-circuit Chartres Cathedral model, and the path itself served as an allegory for my journey. After walking in the labyrinth for quite some time, I ended up on the outermost circuit, feeling farther away from the center than ever (much like the part of my retreat when I was dealing with all of the junk of a lifetime coming to the surface). However, after just a few more turns, I was at the center. So when I felt the farthest away, I was actually almost there. What a hopeful metaphor!
An Extra Day
By the time my healing retreat had ended, I didn’t feel ready to return home. I decided to stay an extra day, to make sure the shift I experienced was solid enough to really take hold.
I didn’t spend the day meditating. I mostly walked around Light on the Hill with my camera and did some writing.
As the sun set, I headed back to my cottage – a different cottage than I had stayed in for my healing retreat.
The sunset was dazzling!
Before going to bed, I realized I left my toothbrush in the car and had to walk all the way to the parking lot to get it. On the way back, the lighted path leading back to my cottage was so lovely that I was tempted to take my camera out and photograph it – but I knew better and opted for sleep! However, it made me realize how exquisitely beautiful everything here is. Every building, the land itself, the view – every single detail.
Alice has been my teacher and guide for the past 29 years, before Light on the Hill even existed. During the past 29 years, I have witnessed an incredible story unfold. I remember each step of the process, including when she moved out of her house in Ithaca and onto the hill and married her husband, Larry, who had recently bought the first parcel of land. I remember the various obstacles she and Larry ran into in the course of manifesting their shared vision of building a retreat center. At times, it seemed the universe required them to prove they really wanted it. I remember going on my first retreat in what is now the healing hut, which at the time was the only structure on the land besides Alice and Larry’s house. And now there are two cottages, two huts, a meditation chapel, two 11-circuit Chartres labyrinths, and a huge lodge (for group work) that hosts: 22 dorm rooms, a commercial kitchen, a dining room, several cozy and inspired meeting spaces, and a great room with a fabulous view and a 32-foot high, tipi-like ceiling that comes to an apex with a pyramid-shaped skylight.
Every detail at Light on the Hill is intentional and uncompromised, from the environmentally conscious products and the comfort of the spaces, to the inspired art work and the architecture and placement of the buildings.
When I woke up during the night with the light of the nearly full moon shining through the windows, it occurred to me that the reason why I stayed an extra day was to really experience my connection to the land and to absorb its story. To experience the spiritual, nurturing, protective energy that’s built up here over the past 24 years and to which I’ve retreated whenever I was at a crossroads, sought answers or healing, or simply wanted to deepen my spiritual life. I have come here since the very beginning, with the exception of a few years when my children were very small, and I couldn’t leave them. It is where my second wedding and a couple other very personal ceremonies took place. I am so grateful for Light on the Hill.
The work, patience, and persistence that went into making Light on the Hill what it is today is beyond inspiring. Alice has modeled to me that getting over your issues with money and not being afraid to ask for what you’re worth is part of the process. The story of Light on the Hill has been an incredible lesson for me. Without knowing, I stayed the extra day in order for this lesson to really sink in. Here, I have a model for living larger and not compromising the vision you hold in your heart, even when you encounter obstacles.
And I felt so grateful for Alice’s presence in my life as my teacher and guide for the past 29 years. She has unfailingly pointed me inward to the source of my own wisdom and helped me deal with the repercussions when my unconscious programming took me to places I might have avoided had I been more mindful. Having known me for 29 years, she is able to point out my dysfunctional patterns and assist me in healing them. Her message has always been one of empowerment, strength, and love, and she has supported me no matter what I brought to the table. I wish everyone on this planet could experience this kind of steadfast, healing presence and have someone so conscious, wise, and honest in their lives. I am truly grateful for everything she has modeled to me in the context of our relationship and for all she has awakened in me.
In addition to the dynamic shifts and integration I experienced, I had some major takeaways from my retreat that centered around energy. For instance…
My work is to keep reclaiming my energy and attention when they wander outside of myself. It’s kind of like retrieving a kitten that keeps wandering out of the basket. When my energy wanders outward, it dissipates. And when that happens? Close your eyes, get still, and feel the inner body – the energy and light in it. Really experience it, and remember that I am that light. Doing so brings me back to the place where I know what is most important and will find everything I need for this journey. It is the most wondrous sanctuary, the most beautiful homecoming to enter my own heart, which is a vast universe of love. It is where I find guidance. Although I’m a human being who needs to do work in this world, my work can be fueled by this source of supreme love and wholeness. When I step through the threshold into this inner chamber, it’s like entering a different frequency, dimension, or channel. Heaven truly is in my heart. And daily meditation and “checking in” is essential to remain centered, experience my inner light, and bring my awareness back when I start to wander.
In addition to realizing the importance of daily meditation, I also realized how vital sleep and movement are to the quality of my energy. I can’t accomplish much when I’m sleep deprived, and I have been in this state for quite some time, almost as if I’ve been operating on a brownout. And it’s such a simple fix that just requires discipline! Adequate, restful sleep is the foundation for getting my mind in the best shape it can be in for the work I need to do and needs to be a priority. After five nights, it’s already making a huge difference! And movement and exercise are fundamental to getting the energy circulating and channeling it outward so it won’t get stuck. Tune in and feel where the energy wants to go, and take movement/exercise breaks as needed.
I also learned not to get attached to the content of my emotions because they are often signals that my energy is out of balance. For instance, what manifests as sadness and depression is probably exhaustion and signals a need for sleep. And when I’m feeling panicked, agitated, anxious, or blocked, these feelings are signals that I need exercise or movement. There’s an excess of energy that needs to be released, so go for a walk or do some yoga! Rather than buy into the storyline, “I’m sad, and this is why” and become dramatic about it, focus on the level of energy and ask what my energetic needs are this moment – and be disciplined about fulfilling them.
It seems to be about working with energy and patterns, not a fixed or stationary self. And that is both empowering and hopeful! It takes courage to see and accept your patterns in the first place, but if you can go to that scary place and not get hooked into self-loathing or self-pity (which also can be patterns!), you can begin to transform them with discipline, patience, and self-love. And even when having a hard time struggling with something, remember that I am light. I am more than this problem. I am a spiritual being having a temporary existence in this human body.
During one of my healing sessions when I expressed lingering resentment, Alice brought me back by telling me exactly what I needed to hear: “I have known you for 30 years, and your life has been a series of mistakes, and the common denominator is you.” (Of course, there have been some good choices, as well, but we were focusing on what gets in the way of my inner peace and areas for healing.) This message is at the same time humbling and hopeful. I got me into all these messes, and I can change the patterns and get back out!
As I walked the labyrinth for the last time before going home, I reflected on how I wish I took more risks throughout my life, especially in terms of formal education. There was another time that felt like a huge crossroads, in the early 90s. If I had it to do over again, I’d have left my safety zone and gone to either Boulder, CO or Cambridge, MA to study at Naropa University or Lesley College or followed through with attending either Harvard Divinity School or Union Theological Seminary. Instead, I became involved with my future husband and father of my children and went with him to Syracuse where I pursued an MSW degree part-time while working at Syracuse University full-time (and getting the remitted tuition benefit). I regret playing it so safe and small – and being steered by a relationship – because doing so prevented me from following my own path/calling/wisdom in so many ways. Even later in life, after getting a master’s degree in education from a progressive college, I took the “safe” route and worked in public education. Early in life, I didn’t have any models for thinking bigger and making more authentic choices. But now I do. And my life isn’t over yet. It’s not too late!
And so, fueled with hope and a planner filled with ideas and deadlines, I left the hill and brought the light with me, ready to pack up camp and start moving. I don’t know how anything will turn out, but as Buddhist nun, Pema Chodron, said about the willingness to get going and follow your heart: “It is taking you forward, and you are leaving the nest [safety zone]. And that never can be a mistake.”
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